The Eel

It's interesting to have Imamura's clinical documentarian eye turn to melodrama. What you get is still pretty raw – there's drunken scuffles, mental illness, sexual harassment, an attempted rape, an attempted suicide and a pretty toxic financial entanglements. All of those things make sense from the director of The Insect Woman. But while that film was based on a real story the director gleaned from a woman he met and interviewed, The Eel is based on a novel. It therefore has structure, and its metaphors and symbols are denser, if not particularly subtle.

The film is bookended by two violent scenes. The first is bloody and ethereal, almost out of an Argento serial killer film, with blood spraying the camera. The main character Yamashita discovers his wife in bed with another man, and butchers her with a knife. He gives himself over to the police and serves an eight-year prison sentence before being released on parole with a pet eel as a companion. Yamashita prefers the company of the silent and obedient eel to that of people, who have the annoying habit of not doing what he wants. Perhaps prison sent him loopy. Or perhaps the pathology was always there, and his wife was murdered because of it. The film is about Yamashita learning to embrace other people and their messy lives. He lets go of the eel and his own solipsism when he becomes a member of a community.

The film begins with shots of office blocks and Yamashita at work. This is a different kind of prison, and Imamura suggests that a move away from the big city is the first step towards rehabilitation. The film is laden with further symbols and contrasts. After his horrific knife-work, Yamashita trains as a barber, almost as a way to learn to keep his blades under control. This is a not-too-subtle nod to the sexual repression Yamashita imposes on himself, as well as his sense of sexual inadequacy. He refuses to use a spear to catch eels with his fisherman friend, preferring to lure them into a long tube – a feminine rather than masculine way of killing things.

It's good that the romantic interest Keiko has also had enough of sexually rapacious exploitative men, finding the sullen but protective Yamashita the one safe harbour in stormy weather. She also lures him in with bento boxes while he's out fishing, underlining Yamashita's identification with the solitary eel that refuses to bite. The final moment of violence in the film is a chaotic brawl in which she accidentally hits Yamashita over the head, and then smashes the tank of his pet eel, setting it free. This is shot in the clear light of day, and it feels real rather than hallucinatory. It's about life breaking in and purging the demons that set in when you spend too long chasing a paycheck in a soulless megalopolis.

No comments:

Post a Comment